For years, brands have shied away from publicly voicing their political opinions out of fear of alienating potential customers. But recently there’s been an undeniable shift in consumer patterns and marketing trends. Our generation now demands transparency from the companies we buy from, and the ethical standard to which we hold these brands is thankfully higher than ever.
In fact, a 2018 survey found that 64 per cent of consumers would reward brands that partake in some form of activism, so it stands to reason that there’s now a huge cash incentive for brands to be seen as politically engaged. But how do we tell the difference between brands who are actively trying to use their platforms for good, and those who are purely virtue signalling to boost their own profits?
Following the murder of George Floyd and the rising momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, some of the world’s biggest commercial businesses such as Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and L’Oreal have vowed to stand in solidarity with protesters and do more in their efforts to tackle systematic racism and oppression. At face value, this is largely positive and it sounds like brands are finally willing to use the full force of their wallets and platforms to take a stand against racial injustice and police brutality. But unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that for some companies this is purely a performative exercise.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the worst offenders have been within the fast fashion industry, where real societal issues have been churned out and discarded as quickly as the very fashion trends that these brands sell.
Take fashion giant Boohoo for instance, who were quick to post a black tile on Blackout Tuesday to show their support for the Black Lives Matters movement, as well as committing to making internal changes by setting up a diversity and inclusion board. Yet, less than a week later, they found themselves in the midst of allegations of breaching the Modern Slavery Act as one of their suppliers was accused of underpaying workers as well as failing to adequately protect workers from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
This blatant hypocrisy didn’t go unnoticed, and the swift backlash showed the high price of virtue signalling for brands. #BoycottBoohoo almost immediately started trending on Twitter, with ASOS and Next quick to drop the brand from their own websites as well. Furthermore, it also meant that Boohoo unwittingly undermined and undid all the work of their separately-owned company Pretty Little Thing, which pledged to give 100 per cent of its profits from the Pretty Little Thing x Saweetie collection to the Black Lives Matters movement.
This goes to show that brands can no longer get away with jumping on the bandwagon of meaningful hashtags with empty messages and public one-off donations when they continue to violate and exploit their own workforces behind closed doors. Even the grandest of gestures are undermined when brands look for a quick way to earn social media points before getting their own houses in order. It’s simply not enough to pay lip service to a movement with public pledges anymore.
An American survey by public relations firm, Edelman, found that 63 per cent of people expected brands to back their statements on the murder of George Floyd with concrete action to avoid being seen as exploitative or opportunistic. And here in the UK, the pressure is also mounting. A survey by PRWeek found that whilst older members of society would prefer for brands to remain silent, 60 per cent of younger consumers aged between 18-34 believe that brands need to do more in the fight against racism. And as the world moves forward, it is this demographic which has the power.
Words are no longer enough — it’s time for businesses to put their money where their mouth is in order to make meaningful changes.
One brand that hasn’t stayed silent in its efforts to tackle racism is Ben & Jerry’s. The ice cream brand first aligned itself with the Black Lives Matter movement back in 2016 following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer, and since then, activism has become an integral part of its brand. Rather than simply posting a black tile or hollow statement about doing better on Blackout Tuesday, the company issued a powerful statement as well as a four-step concrete process on how to dismantle white supremacy in the US.
One of the reasons why Ben & Jerry’s deserve the praise they get is that they have worked activism into the very core of their business model — not just their marketing strategy. Their Global Head of Activism, Christopher Miller, has never worked in brand management. Miller is somebody who’s only ever worked in civil society policy and advocacy. His work has never been about increasing revenue, which is why it’s clear that this is a brand that genuinely cares about social good, not just maximising sales.
Another brand that’s often lauded as the standard to hold other companies to is Nike, thanks to its controversial 2018 advertising campaign featuring American football star Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick had been famously dropped by the National Football League after taking a knee during the national anthem before a 2016 match, in protest against police brutality in the US. When Nike chose to make him the face of their brand, they faced the usual threats of boycotting and protests, but they stood firm in their decision and were rewarded by consumers with a 31 per cent jump in online sales following the initial release of the advert.
However, even Nike are not without criticism. It was revealed in in 2019 that less than 10 per cent of Nike’s 300-plus vice-presidents worldwide were black. The difference, is that unlike other brands who are sometimes quick to shirk responsibility, Nike responded openly and have since taken accountability by issuing its annual Nike Impact Report in which they fully disclose their progress. This willingness to accept criticism and work to rectify situations is what sets Nike apart from other brands — systematic racism isn’t something which can be fixed overnight, so brands need to be transparent and accepting of their own failures and how they plan to move forward. Mistakes happen, but it is how brands handle the fallout that matters the most.
For example, many will remember when Prada faced accusations of racism after photos of a store display went viral in 2018. The display showed figurines with ‘racist and denigrating blackface imagery’. Whilst Prada were quick to apologise and made the usual promises to donate funds to organisations fighting for racial justice, it wasn’t until a formal settlement was reached this year that they finally agreed to partake in racial-equity training, making their previous gestures and apologies seem hollow. It’s no longer enough to just throw money at a problem until it goes away; accountability is everything.
Consumers don’t expect perfection. We’re all human, and vulnerable to making mistakes. All consumers are asking for is accountability, and in order to survive the new market, businesses have to be willing to answer difficult questions whilst rising to the challenge to do better. Brands have the power and money to be the vectors of positive social change, but in order to do this, they need to first look inwardly before outwardly pushing political messages purely to sell products. This means hiring more diversely at board level, as well as undergoing training. As evidenced by Boohoo, businesses also need to have difficult conversations with their suppliers and ambassadors rather than turning a blind eye.
Now more than ever, transparency is crucial, and activism needs to go beyond posting a message of solidarity on social media. Customers deserve more than blanket statements and press releases. This movement is pivotal to our history, and it should therefore become more deeply ingrained into the core of all business in order for change to happen. It cannot — and should not — become a trendy sense of corporate social responsibility that brands adopt purely to be seen as progressive.
One-time charitable donations simply aren’t enough anymore. Brands need to make long-term changes to their structures. We need real change, and it has to come from within.